In Depth

Art investors are banking on Banksy

Demand for the world-famous street artist’s work shows no sign of abating

Judging by how quickly If You Don’t Mask, You Don’t Get, a mural of disinfectant-wielding rats, was scrubbed off the inside of a Tube train in July, you might suppose Transport for London is not a fan of Banksy. If so, that would put the government body in a minority. 

Auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s have both held online sales of the anonymous artist’s prints this month. Every lot in the Sotheby’s sale smashed its estimate, including the most expensive, Girl with Balloon (2004), which sold for £438,500.

Meanwhile, Christie’s raised a total of £2.1m from the sale of 21 Banksy lots. Again, Girl with Balloon (this time with a purple instead of a red balloon) fetched the highest price, at £791,250. But the real show-stopper is yet to come. 

Updating Monet

On 21 October, Show me the Monet will go under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London. “Banksy has taken Monet’s iconic depiction of the Japanese bridge in the Impressionist master’s famous garden at Giverny and transformed it into a modern-day fly-tipping spot,” explains Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art, Europe. “More canal than idyllic lily pond, Banksy litters Monet’s composition with discarded shopping trollies and a fluorescent orange traffic cone.”

The result, Branczik continues, is a comment on “society’s disregard for the environment in favour of the wasteful excesses of consumerism”.

Speaking of wasteful consumerism, the painting comes with a high estimate of £5m but has been tipped to break the current record for a Banksy work of £9.9m (including fees) that was set last October by Devolved Parliament (2009), a painting of chimpanzees sitting on the famous green benches.

Pop star and art collector Robbie Williams is “a major player in a syndicate” hoping to buy the Monet-inspired piece, according to The Sun.

“The irony that the Establishment has embraced his anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian art is not lost on Banksy,” says James Baskerville, a prints and multiples specialist at Christie’s. In his screenprint Morons (2007), two sepia versions of which sold for £60,000 this month at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, Banksy parodies a photograph from 1987 of an auctioneer selling Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. But instead of the flowers, the artist has written “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit”. 

That the price of this sepia version has almost doubled since an edition fetched £32,500 just last September is a pretty good reason to believe it. And Banksy knows that too – or so it would seem. As Artsy’s Benjamin Sutton notes, “Banksy’s public image as an irreverent, globetrotting trickster is sometimes at odds with his very concerted efforts to control the market for his work” (see below). 

In any case, the market “shows no signs of slowing”. That is saying something when you consider that auction sales have been forced online and have been suffering since lockdown. But Covid-19 restrictions cramped neither Banksy’s creativity on the London Underground this summer nor the Banksy economy. Perhaps nothing can.

Red & White Police by Banksy

Avon and Somerset Constabulary (Red and White) © Christies

The cost of anonymity

Banksy has been creating artworks for sale since the 1990s. “In the beginning, Banksy didn’t create prints to make money and they were sold for such low prices”, says Christie’s specialist Baskerville. “People were buying the art on their credit cards as if it was a poster, with no awareness of its future value.”

He cites the example of Avon and Somerset Constabulary (Red and White) from 2000 (pictured above), which was bought from Banksy’s exhibition at Severnshed restaurant in Bristol that year. “Works in the show cost less than £1,000.” The work is now for private sale at Christie’s – for presumably a lot more. Importantly, it also comes with a certificate of authenticity.

As Banksy’s fame grew, fakes began to appear in the market. So, in 2008, Banksy set up Pest Control to authenticate his works. “If you’re unsure about your certificate, show it to a specialist who can advise you,” says Baskerville. “Or contact Pest Control directly.” But, time (and success) makes fools of us all. Despite Banksy having once stated (on a wall) that “copyright is for losers”, Pest Control successfully applied for a European Union trademark on Banksy’s mural of the “flower thrower” (Love is in the Air) in Bethlehem. 

But then last month, after a two-year dispute involving a greeting-card company, the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) ruled against the artist because he could not be identified as the unquestionable owner of such works, as The Guardian reported at the time. Anonymity comes at a price.

This article was originally published in MoneyWeek

 

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